Cinemagraph Pro Brings Haunting Views of Chernobyl to Life

“A faded Soviet flag still soars proudly in Chernobyl, Ukraine.”

Filmmaker Christiaan Welzel and his wife Kseniya have trekked across the world adventuring for the majority of the last eight years. They decided to start exploring places that were extremely hard to get to like Antarctica or various ghost towns, but they finally decided on traveling to Ukraine where Kseniya is from. It was in April of last year, days before the 27th anniversary of the nuclear disaster, when months of preparations finally came to fruition and they headed off to Chernobyl.

It was an incredible journey filled with bribes and running and gunning within the irradiated Exclusion Zone – way off the path that normal tour groups get access to. Chrisitiaan and Kseniya had to avoid touching anything – especially the water! They wrapped their gear in garbage bags and were never allowed to let anything touch the ground so they ended up using countless bags to get each shot, as they could only be used once… and time was very limited. In the end, the couple sought out a macabre scene out of the apocalypse but humbly discovered a distinct beauty in the way that nature was taking back over this desolate city. Christiaan noted, “It’s peaceful. Nature is taking it back. You can hear birds chirping.”

We sat down with with the talented filmmaker to delve into this unique experience.

Christiaan, just how “Run ‘N Gun” was the shooting process?

Shooting in Chernobyl represents the ultimate Run ‘N Gun experience. The very nature of Run ‘N Gun suggests that you don’t get to plan or stage your shots like you would in a studio/location shoot- There is no “setup”. We were given permission to shoot for 2 days in the exclusion zone. We used the first day for scouting, which was really a tour of the zone. That first day made us realize that we weren’t going to be able to setup lights or stand in one place for very long. Buildings can cave in and floors can collapse. If you stay in one place long enough, you might even be threatened by the saturated surfaces that drip water from above and you really don’t want that. Even the threat of dust when performing a lens change would be of concern. We prepared for the second day by planning out the top 20 locations we wanted to shoot in and did the best we could during optimal day light. The reality was that to shoot in all those locations meant simply turning the camera on and filming whatever we saw on the spot. That meant no Jib setup, no lighting setup and little stabilization devices could be employed. As it turned out, that was more than adequate. Chernobyl as a location provides interesting and atmospheric visuals no matter where you point your camera. In that case, content wins over camera skills.

“A lone gas mask is a grim reminder of the events that took place on April 26, 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine.”

Why was it important for you guys to capture Chernobyl? 

We were in Chernobyl during the the 27th anniversary, marking the day it happened nearly 30 years ago. My wife, a former resident of the Soviet Union has a connection to the event as she lived as a young girl not far from the disaster at the time. This was her first time seeing the exclusion zone and a powerful reminder of what her country and greater family endured. For me, visiting Chernobyl was in part for interest’s sake. Where else in the world can you stand in the middle of a modern city, stopped in time? There is a theatrical effect reserved for major motion pictures that you have access to. I seized the opportunity for personal interest and to share a dramatic apocalyptic vision for others.

“Amongst the most eerie of places, the theme park in Chernobyl shows the least amount of radioactive material.”

How did you guys tackle the health and safety issues surrounding this shoot?

Health should be your number one concern in the Exclusion Zone. There’s a misconception that even the air you breathe is irradiated but that isn’t the case as that’s not how radiation works. Rather, surfaces and water are your enemies. The radioactive particles attach to substantial matter and that’s the danger (at least now it is). What that means for those visiting the zone is watching your step. You need to avoid kicking up dust, touching surfaces and of course getting wet. Metals, organic matter and liquids hold their radioactive properties and are still a threat today. As a precaution, we used garbage bags on our camera equipment and stabilizers. That meant having to discard the bags with each and every takedown of equipment. So try to picture yourself threading a garbage bag onto your monopod each time you extend it- it will slow you down. Then, you need to avoid getting dripped on. Looking up isn’t wise 🙂 Instead, listening for the sound of dripping water and avoiding is best. At the end of our day, we took a radiation test and discarded our footwear as well as some other attire/equipment that made contact and showed high levels of gamma radiation.

“A gamma dosimeter alarm sounds as we first enter the exclusion zone.”

What kind of gear was used to capture this stunning footage?

We shot primarily with the Canon C300 in 1080P/24fps at 50 mbps to ensure a cinematic look. A simple Canon 24-70 F/4 IS lens with a circular polarizer was used for most shots. We also used the Tokina 11-16 F/2.8 for those ultra wide shots in low light. Though natural lighting was poor in most buildings, we tried to keep the ISO lower than 8000 to avoid unwanted noise. F&V Z96 LED lights were used to fill areas. (Reflectors and diffusers were used otherwise). Because we had to shoot fast and remain nimble, we shot in Canon C-Log with the intent of salvaging some highlights and shadow information. We used a monopod for almost all shots, with the addition of a portable slider for the rest. If I did it again, I’d leave the slider behind as it posed nothing but problems when trying to find a surface for it to rest on.

“The years have not been kind. Few places in Chernobyl have preserved as well as this basketball court.”

How did you go about transforming the footage into Cinemagraph photos? Was the intent always to morph these into living images?

We never had the intention of making Cinemagraph photos leading up to the shoot. In fact, the resulting footage was intended to be part of a video series showcasing exotic and extreme travel. In the end, we showcased the footage as stock video by creating documentary content pieces that gave a taste of the best parts. We worked with and created this short:

When trying to sell the footage I discovered Flixel’s Cinemagraph Pro. The software allowed me to make haute couture animations that were both artistic and highly sharable without the burden of large file sizes. There was literally no learning curve involved. I downloaded the software and had beautiful cinema graphs in an evening- that practically created themselves. As said before, the content was interesting in the first place. All I had to do was pick the perfect 13 video clips to work with.

The only mistake that I can admit to was not fully understanding the value in Cinemagraph Pro’s output options. My original output was as a GIF. This worked well, but quality had to take a hit. I later discovered the option of outputting to Flixel’s gallery where the file remains 1080p video. That level of quality is unheard of for quick and sharable artwork on any digital channel.

“The most iconic of Chernobyl’s landmarks- the new carnival was scheduled to open only days after the disaster.”

As a Creative Director in advertising, how do you see Cinemagraph images and their evolution? What is so compelling about a Cinemagraph photo in your opinion? Do you find the GIF a ‘limiting’ format? 

Cinemagraph photos are compelling because long form video is a huge commitment. We can’t expect the next generation to watch our 15 and 30 minute content. The future of content is shorter than that… much shorter. In this case, Cinemagraph pictures provide all the benefits of a moody and atmospheric feature video in a controlled and highly artistic short loop.  Not only are they easily shared, but they are favoured by the art community and show strength in conceptual expression.

As an advertiser myself, Cinemagraph images are evolving past a niche art style and are becoming mainstream. Video is a large filetype and received for hefty media buys in the space of banners. Flash ads are slowly becoming your father’s medium (if not already). GIFs are a nice balance but suffer from low image quality. Flixel’s approach to Cinemagraphs gives you everything and they work everywhere.

“Though radioactive, goods, equipment and fixtures from Chernobyl have been looted and resold throughout Europe.”

A huge thank you Christiaan! Be sure to check out all of Christiaan’s flixels here.

Christiaan is a Creative Director at Critical Mass. You can follow him on VimeoFacebook and Twitter.


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